Familiar foes and new rivalries highlight the fascinating storylines from the Elite Eight clashes this weekend.
Despite those oddities, there is still some very good soccer hidden under the cloak of abnormality. This weekend will be a showcase of those quality sides, as the season has dwindled down the pack of contenders to only eight.
From UNC’s polished attack to Creighton’s defensive dominance, these are the teams you should be excited to watch come December. Even mixed with those storied programs are the Cinderellas like St. Mary’s and Charlotte that offer a underdog story for the neutral fan.
Standing between these teams and a trip to Hoover, Alabama for the 2011 College Cup is one win.
Home team listed first
UNC (19-2-2) – St. Mary’s (11-6-5), Dec. 3, 5:00 p.m. (ET)
Ah, the joy of being the top seed.
On paper, this is probably the biggest mismatch of this round. However, the St. Mary’s Gaels have been underdogs in every game so far and they keep proving doubters wrong.
In the last round, UNC outlasted Indiana in a 1-0 overtime victory thanks to a Billy Schuler tally – his eighth game-winner of the season. St. Mary’s, surprisingly, found itself in a shootout with Brown that ended 3-2 in favor of the WCC champions.
The Tar Heels are 12-0-2 at home this season, which is not indicative of any beneficial fan support, but simply the value of friendly confines. St. Mary’s continues to defy streaks and trends, but this looks like the end of the line for the Gaels.
The Tar Heels are skillful, deep at every position, and well coached. It will take a formidable effort to slow down the attack in Chapel Hill, but the Gaels will hang tough.
Prediction: 1-0 UNC
Creighton (20-2-0) – South Florida (13-3-4), Dec. 3, 2:00 p.m. (ET)
Creighton head coach Elmar Bolowich expressed frustration in the postgame press conference about letting UCSB hang around in the third round tilt that saw his team advance via a 2-1 score.
Most coaches would be happy with that result, but Bolowich has a team chasing historic records and is not content with anything but perfection. The Jays currently have a 0.22 goals against average, which would be the all time NCAA record if their season ended today.
Looking to disrupt Creighton’s place in history is the South Florida Bulls led by junior striker Dom Dwyer. The London native tweeted Monday regarding the Creighton defense, “we love a challenge. The goals are coming so lets see!”
The Bulls are practicing on a new turf field this week to help prepare for Morrison Stadium’s notoriously difficult surface. UCSB did the same thing, but it did little good for the Gauchos, which looked like they were playing on ice for the first 20 minutes.
Prediction: 2-0 Creighton
UCONN (19-3-2) – Charlotte (16-4-2), Dec. 4, 1:00 p.m. (ET)
The Huskies were dominant in a 3-0 thrashing of James Madison in the third round, which did not amount to much of a test for Ray Reid’s squad. Meanwhile, Charlotte knocked off the defending NCAA Champions Akron Zips 1-0 to clinch a berth among the final eight teams.
The tactical aspect of this fixture is the most fascinating of any in this round, as Charlotte coach Jeremy Gunn will once again be called on to use the magic of his British tea to overcome another ranked opponent.
The wizard of Charlotte was quite clever against the potent Akron offense in the last round, as the 49ers sat back and let Akron harmlessly knock the ball without many quality looks in the final third. The Zips only registered three shots on goal, which was a season low.
The Huskies have a completely different approach to the game though. Coach Reid’s side is more direct and depends on the play of Carlos Alvarez and Tony Cascio for the incisive passes in the final third.
If Gunn’s midfield can disrupt the two Huskies, the 49ers will be in a very good position to advance to College Cup. But home field advantage and experience do amount to something, and Storrs will be sold-out and rocking on Sunday.
Prediction: UCONN 2-1
Louisville (14-6-2) – UCLA (17-4-1), Dec. 3, 7:00 p.m. (ET)
Louisville knocked off a wounded Maryland side in the third round behind a very impressive performance from senior forward Colin Rolfe, who had a goal and two assists. UCLA continued its domination over the last month with a 3-0 beat down of Rutgers thanks to another gem of a game from junior striker Chandler Hoffman.
Hoffman now claims 18 goals on the season and a goal in the last three games. Earlier this season, he tied the UCLA program record with a goal in five straight contests. Clearly, the Alabama native is in the zone right now with his eyes on a trip home for College Cup.
Lost in the wake of Hoffman’s excellent run of form has been the steadiness and control of the Bruins defense. UCLA is riding a seven game shutout streak, which is only one shy of the program record.
Even with the stingy defense and hot striker, UCLA still heads to Kentucky as the underdog. UCLA under coach Jorge Salcedo is 4-10-1 in games played east of the Mississippi River. Also, Cardinals head coach Ken Lolla has knocked off Salcedo’s team twice in the only meetings between the programs.
Lolla will attack the center of the field against UCLA and exploit the soft spots in the visitor’s formation. Louisville senior Nick DeLeon will be the key for the home team in finding space between the defense and midfield of the opposition.
Prediction: Louisville 2-1
2011 prediction record: 27-13